I just watched Avatar 2, and I’ve seen a number of reviews (ranging all the way from ‘worst movie ever’ to ‘best movie of the year’), and I thought I’d toss in my thoughts.
First off, some notes about James Cameron. Cameron has always been one of my favorite directors. He has created some of my very favorite movies. But he has really changed over his career in interesting ways.
Young Cameron produced The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, and True Lies. I dislike True Lies a great deal. I watched it one time only and did not like it at all. But the other 4 all rank in my favorite dozen sci-fi movies of all time. No other director has dominated my own personal favorites to the extent that Cameron has done. As such, any time Cameron releases a new movie, I’ve been excited.
To be honest, a part of me wishes that Cameron had not grown and changed. If he could have stayed the same and kept turning out movies like Aliens, Abyss, or Terminator every couple of years, what a great library of movies he would have created.
But, Cameron was changing. He was changing from a story teller to a world builder, and the results are a set of movies far different from his early works. The first place that shows up is in Titanic.
It is pretty clear to me, watching Titanic, that Cameron was absolutely not telling the story of Rose and Jack. Their love story was done reasonably well, but in exactly the same way that same love story has been told time and time again. Sure, they were young, good-looking, and very good actors. They had a nice chemistry. Their story was told quite competently. But, when all is said and done, their story was pretty average. Yes, when Jack died it made you sad, but to be honest, I blame most of that on the Celine Dion song (which I really like). So, great song, great actors, acceptable story, heart-strings pulled, and that’s that. A good love story with a tear-jerker ending that stays with you a few days and then is largely forgotten.
But, as I said before, Cameron was not telling the story of Jack and Rose. He was telling the story of a world that he had clearly fallen in love with. The real star; the real story; the story that was told with a level of detail and patience and love was the story of the ship. The Titanic is the true star of that movie. The reason people still remember the story of Jack and Rose is because of the world where their story was told in. The world of the Titanic.
There are several scenes in Titanic that actually do make me a bit teary eyed. The scene where the mother is putting her children to bed as the ship is sinking reflects the all-too-real situation that some of the poorer passengers were placed in. The scene where the elderly husband and wife also go to bed is based on the story of two real passengers who would not be separated. And the story of the musicians playing while the people are trying to board the lifeboats is completely accurate. And of course, the real story of the death of the titanic, told as accurately as possible, showing all of the steps and all of the failures of the ship, and how one failure led to another which led to another, eventually leading to the death of the ship and so many passengers. These real stories are far more important than the story of Rose and Jack.
As a result, Titanic is another movie that I really like (though it is much less fun to watch) because Cameron first builds a wonderful, complex world (the ship) and then you watch it be destroyed.
Titanic was followed by a very long gap during which Cameron fully made his transition from story teller to world builder. So, when he returned with his next movie, Avatar, the experience that he gave us was unlike anything that I’ve ever seen.
Yes, there is a story in Avatar. It’s not original in any way, but it’s done in a completely acceptable, competent manner. The characters are developed to the degree that they needed. They are played by good actors and actresses. All of this is done in a way that would be completely acceptable in any average (or even better than average) movie. The story would produce a movie that people enjoyed, and may even watch a couple of times, but would largely be overlooked as new movies came out which filled the niche of ‘what you want to watch today’.
But, as with Titanic, the story is carried along, elevated far beyond the level to which it could rise by itself, by the world that was created out of the mind of Cameron. The world of Pandora. Yes, we’ve heard the story of the primitive natives vs. the technological conquerors. As many others have said, the story has been told in other movies with a much stronger level of story telling. But the world of Pandora had never been shown before, and it was astounding. If Avatar is only the story of primitive race vs. technological race, it’s forgettable. But if that is actually the secondary story; if the real story being told is the story of a world; well then Avatar is not merely an average movie. It is a spectacular movie.
And that’s exactly what it is in my book. Yes, for a movie to be one of my favorites, I want a story. So, as a result, I’m far more likely to re-watch Abyss or Aliens than I am to re-watch Avatar. But, I am still enamored by Avatar. I’ll still re-watch it. And I’ll still think that it really is a great movie, told by one of the greatest directors of our day.
And that brings us to Avatar 2. As I watched Avatar 2, I saw that Cameron had moved even further towards world builder and away from story teller. Avatar 2 runs about 3 1/2 hours long, and, in my opinion, has about 2 hours of story in it. There are lengthy sequences (far more than appeared in the original Avatar, though that movie had them too) where the world is developed, but not the story. As I watched those sequences, I experienced sort of a split-brain reaction. The part of me that wanted a story recognized that nothing was happening, and that, as a result, I should be a little bored of the movie. But the part of me that recognized that the story of the world was being developed during those scenes, and developed magnificently at that, that part of me was perfectly content to sit and watch that movie.
As I reflected back on Avatar 2, I realized that I’d experienced that same split-brain event once before.
Back in third grade, my teacher introduced my class to The Hobbit. She would read us stories, and she wanted to try to read The Hobbit to us. Anyone who has read The Hobbit knows how it starts. Slowly! As my teacher was reading The Hobbit to us, every single student in that class lost interest. They were fidgeting and not paying attention. And so, after a couple of sessions (where we had not yet finished the first chapter), my teacher stopped. But she saw that one student had been paying attention, and so she told me that I should read the book. And I did. In fourth grade, I read the Lord of the Rings. During both of those experiences, I saw long sections of the book that could only be described as boring. Nothing happened. The story did not progress. There were lengthy parties, long segments describing the scenery that the characters were going through. There were long interludes of discussion and introspection. And yet, as I was reading them, I was not bored. I was being introduced into a world that Tolkien absolutely loved. He spent hours developing languages and histories and timelines, many of which never even got a reference in the books. But Tolkien loved his Middle Earth to such an extent that he had to include it in the books. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is a story of some people, a ring, a great war, and a wonderful quest. But it is also a story of a world, and that story is every bit as important as the story of the quest to destroy the ring.
So, though not everyone may agree, I consider Cameron to be very similar to Tolkien. I rarely read Tolkien at this point (in part because I’ve read them so many times I really do not need to pick them up to have the story play out in my mind), but Tolkien is the basis of my love of fantasy. I’m still waiting to see if Cameron will become a basis for me. Perhaps not, but that will be largely because Cameron came so much later in life. But even so, I eagerly await Avatar 3. I hope that he is able to make Avatar 4 and 5. I’ll be watching them!